How To Avoid Polluting The Leadership Language
Never confuse talking and communicating. A little self-examination about what you say — and how you say it — can mean the difference between a listener tuning you out and hanging on your every word.
Habits and mannerisms can derail any carefully planned message or presentation that either is distracting or undermine the impact of statements. Try to avoid these eight most common mistakes:
- Hedging phrases. These include “sort of,” “kind of” and “I guess.” They indicate that the speaker hasn’t completely defined the message and is avoiding commitment to an idea.
- Hesitations. Examples: “Oh, well,” “you know,” “uh,” “let’s see.” These words and phrases do nothing but interrupt the flow of language and reveal a powerless style.
- Questioning voice tones. Speakers do this when they make statements sound like questions, by putting an upward inflection at the end of what should be a sentence: “These new markets are definitely where they should be?” The questioning form implies self-doubt — that the speaker isn’t sure of the facts.
- Buzzwords. “Interface” or “synergy” or “revisit.” Buzzwords can make a person sound pompous or slangy and, more important, can obscure meaning.
- Monotone voice. The pitch, pace, and volume of a speaker will decide whether an audience will be actively engaged in listening or will tune out. Great speakers vary the sound of their voices and also know when to pause to highlight an important point. Nervous speakers tend to speak at a low volume, raise voice pitch and talk too rapidly. Also, weak speakers fail to articulate and enunciate words.
- Humor. A joke or funny remark can put people at ease and defuse a tense situation, but humor can backfire and cast a negative light on whatever else a speaker says. What’s funny and on the mark to one person may be crude, insensitive or plain stupid to someone else. When using humor, remember that it can be risky.
- Lack of eye contact. Looking someone in the eye signals confidence. It also humanizes communication and keeps listeners actively involved. Avoiding eye contact suggests anxiety and insecurity.
- Nervous body language. Tapping a foot, squirming in a chair and repeatedly touching the face are irritating habits that need to be corrected.
Ask a group of colleagues to define what constitutes leadership, and the following attributes usually surface: Leaders have focus and vision. They are talent brokers who hire and retain the best and the brightest people. They challenge the status quo but know when to embrace risk and when to walk away from it. Leaders are coalition builders who are smart, creative and confident, yet know when to claim credit and when to share the glory. Underlying all these innate and learned skills is the ability to use language as a tool that can shape and control the behavior of others.
Mark Twain once remarked,
“Lord, what an organ is human speech when employed by a master”
after listening to a presentation by one of the orators of his day. Words — how they are chosen, strung together and voiced — have the ability to clarify, influence, persuade, motivate and inspire. How you express yourself has a significant impact on your image and long-term success. In other words, if you can’t find your leadership voice, your leadership potential will be limited.
Figuring out how leaders sound isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago. The old command-and-control environment has been eclipsed by changes that include cross-functional teamwork and greater employee empowerment. Dictating a plan and issuing marching orders has given way to a more collaborative setting that requires more interaction, more dialogue.
Granville N. Toogood, author of “The Articulate Executive” (McGraw-Hill, 1996), states, “Anyone who understands the changes sweeping the business world recognizes that trying to cope with these changes with anemic or nonexistent communication skills is like trying to run a road race in cement shoes.” He adds, “Those who master the speaking game will always have a much better shot at winning the battle of ascendancy.”
Speaking From the Center — or From the Edge
Sarah McGinty, a university supervisor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, Boston, says that leadership language breaks down into two basic styles. She explains, “There is a language from the center and a language from the edge. When people need to be at the center of things, they tend to direct the conversation, make declarative statements, speak with authority — claim their authority. They argue comfortably with people who give opposite opinions. Talking from the center is a more traditional style — the leader is at the front of the pack and leading everybody across the ice.” Certain situations call for this more aggressive stance: e.g., you need to take control of a problem, or you need to sound credible on a particular topic.
The flip side of language from the center is what McGinty calls the “language of influence, or language from the edge.” She says, “You aren’t leading the troops over the barricades. You aren’t at the center of things, but you can still be powerful on the edge by asking questions, summarizing what you have heard, checking that everyone’s understanding of a subject is the same. I call it conversational maintenance, which means keeping the conversation going so that the information flow continues.”
The situation determines the style. Does the situation call for a take-charge commander or a facilitator who seeks out information, mobilizes the staff and herds them into action? McGinty, who has just completed a yet-to-be-published book called “Language as a Power Tool,” contends, “The best communicator is someone who has carefully matched the right language tool to the right job. In other words, the best communicators are people who borrow from both the center and the edge.”
Five Silver Bullets
Toogood, a communications consultant who has been called “America’s greatest executive coach” by The Wall Street Journal, says whether the audience consists of one or 100 people, the language of successful leaders has five characteristics.
- Strong start. Whatever the message, leaders get your attention right away. The opening sentence is strong and precise. Financial professionals tend to use the numbers to build to conclusions, instead of beginning with the main points. For example, they might say, “I would like to discuss the sales outlook beyond the United States,” rather than, “China and India are the keys to our future. Next year we expect the China market to open up completely, and India two years after that. Right now we have only a 2 percent penetration in China, but … .”
- Clear message. Toogood says, “Leaders don’t just give you a cataloging; they don’t just give you a laundry list. They don’t expect you to figure out what the point is; they tell you what the point is. They give you a direction and call for some kind of action. This is characteristic of people on the way up as well as people already at the top.”
- No abstractions. Trade in abstract concepts for specific, colorful language laced with examples. Toogood argues, “A strong message without specifics to back it up is a bankrupt message. Leaders are like lawyers in court, presenting a case. You have to give evidence. You have to present the examples that will drive action.”
- Ordinary language. “The further up in an organization you go,” claims Toogood, “the more important it is to forgo the secret-handshake language of your discipline. Leaders speak in ordinary language. When middle managers salt their presentations with insider language, what they are really saying is ‘Hey, pay attention to me. I’ve got a good education, a good track record and a lot of expertise — and I’d like to be appreciated.’ “
- Strong ending. The final point: “Leaders are typically great teachers. The lesson always comes in the beginning of whatever they are saying to you, and it always comes at the end. They give you something to take away. There can be some sort of action, like they ask you for something. Or they leave you with a memorable thought,” says Toogood. Even if a message is not good news — e.g., earnings are down — leaders are able to find some good news buried in the bad — earnings are down for the fourth straight year, but this year’s numbers are better than last year’s. Leaders talk about problems as challenges rather than crippling obstacles.
Framing: A Way to Manage Meaning
State facts about a particular problem to four people, and you could get four different interpretations — none of them what you intended. If you want others to understand and act upon a problem the way you see it, then you need to use language to “frame” the issue. Gail T. Fairhurst, author of “The Art of Framing” (Jossey-Bass, 1996), states, “While leaders do not control events, they do influence how events are seen and understood. To frame a subject is to choose one particular meaning, or set of meanings, over another. In framing, when we create a bias toward one interpretation of our subject, we exclude other aspects, including those that may produce opposite or alternative interpretations.”
One of the best corporate examples of framing is when Lee Iacocca went before Congress to ask for a $1.2 billion federal bailout loan for Chrysler Corp. His goal was formidable: get the government to provide direct support for a private corporation. Aware of the barriers he faced, he framed his presentation around knocking down those barriers. Iacocca pointed out that Chrysler wasn’t setting a precedent for federally-guaranteed loans and then cited past cases involving other corporations. He framed the problem with numbers geared to his government audience: Chrysler wouldn’t survive bankruptcy; 600,000 employees would be affected (Chrysler employees as well as employees of Chrysler dealers and suppliers) and would cost the government $2.7 billion in unemployment insurance and welfare payments in the first year alone (per a Treasury Department estimate). Iacocca said he wasn’t looking for a handout but would repay the loan with interest. Then he framed his message around the positive changes at the company, the steps management had taken to turn the company around. And he put a human face on the situation, framing Chrysler’s problems as “our problems, the country’s problems.”
Fairhurst concludes, “Iacocca’s message was that the picture was grim yet hopeful and terribly important because we would all be affected. Iacocca helped to change the frames of Congress and of many Americans by combining rational and emotional appeals. His framing was sensible, measurable and not easily refuted. He provided a definitive, affirmative answer to the question ‘Should Chrysler be saved?’ His experience powerfully demonstrates the way framing assists us in goal achievement; when the right frames are in place, the right behavior naturally follows.”
To frame a subject, be exact about the message and goals you want to achieve. Then be acutely aware of the audience: Why is the message important to them? What are their perceptions of you? Are they on the same expertise level as you? Are they on your side, or do you have to win them over? Next, think about what words and phrases are best suited to deliver your message — and what statistics and examples will clarify what you have to say.
When Numbers Get in the Way
According to Fairhurst, “Too often, financial people are on automatic when they speak. They place such a premium on the numbers that they equate talking with communicating. And that is a cardinal mistake for individuals who have to communicate financial information. Financial news needs perspective, especially when something like budget information has confusing or contradictory facts. If someone says to you, ‘The company is doing very well, so why are you cutting my budget?’ then the task of the leader is to provide a sensible answer.”
Some other things to consider:
- Don’t overload on statistics. Most people have a hard time digesting more than one or two numbers at a time. Round off the numbers and present only the most important ones.
- Sell the idea, not the slides. During a formal presentation, slides and other graphics can be distracting. Toogood suggests, “Don’t begin or end a presentation with anything but you doing the talking. Begin strongly; begin with your theme. If you are presenting in a room and you are standing up, do not put anything on the wall that will distract from your opening. If you have presentation books available, you need to say to your audience, ‘I’d appreciate it if you didn’t open the books just yet, because there are a couple of things that I would like to say first.’ “
- Dress up the numbers. Analogies give greater meaning to statistics. Toogood gives two examples: Poor: “Production increased 6.3 percent from 8.1 billion bbl to 10.2 billion bbl from 1993 to 1994.” Revised: “Production was up more than 6 percent — roughly 2 billion barrels in the last year alone. That’s enough oil to heat Boston for 10 years.”
Managers vs. Leaders
Managers typically pay a lot of attention to how things get done, while leaders concentrate on the meaning of events and decisions. Also, Fairhurst asserts, “Leaders seem to have a greater sensitivity to language. They answer the ‘why’ question for people, because people want to know why they are doing things. And leaders frequently answer that question before people ask it.”
Identify the type of leadership language that works in a company by observing the people who always get listened to, whether they are at the top echelon or are on the way up. And examine your default style. What do you sound like, and how do you frame and present messages?
“Language is like a Swiss Army knife. Maybe we have one blade that we use more than anything else, but we have a multitude of language instruments available. It’s important to know which ones you’ve already got and which ones you might need to add. To some extent, we all modify our speech styles to the settings we find ourselves in. However, a little more self-examination makes you a more flexible communicator.”